Nostalgia, love of cycling unite at high wheeler race

Larry Black, of Mount Airy, makes his way up the slight incline on West Second Street as a number of riders follow closely behind. (Bill Green/Frederick News-Post)

About two years ago, Eric Rhodes and two friends traveled to England to take part in a penny farthing bicycle race.

The bicycle, also known as a high wheeler or ordinary, is recognizable by its almost absurdly tall front wheel — some reach as high as 60 inches — and petite-by-comparison rear wheel.

An avid cyclist, Rhodes had been riding a penny farthing for a few years and wondered, “Why don’t we bring this to us?”

On Saturday, Rhodes’ recent labor of love, the Frederick Clustered Spires High Wheel Race, came to fruition on the streets of downtown Frederick. The event was part of a bicycle-centric weekend as the three-day Tour de Frederick was also taking place.

“Surprisingly, it’s the only race of its kind in the country,” Rhodes said. “We hope to draw more people in and expand the races.”

Thousands of onlookers crammed the sidewalks of North Market Street and cheered as the 25 male and female riders from across the country sped past along the 0.4-mile circuit.

Three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond was in attendance and was included in a victory lap but did not participate in the race.

The rider who completed the most loops during an hour was the winner.

During her final few laps of the race, rider Alison Torpey, 54, of Louisville, Ky., crashed with another rider near Market and Second streets and was flown to R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, according to Rhodes and trauma nursing coordinator Henry Paje.

Paje said Torpey was in critical condition Saturday night.

The Frederick Police Department said in a news release that Torpey fell off her bicycle and struck the back of her head just below her helmet.

She was conscious but bleeding from the head when an ambulance took her to the Maryland State Police hangar for her flight to shock trauma.

Rick Stumpff, of Galena, Mo., won first among the male riders with 42 laps, while Sheryl Kennedy, of Hagerstown, won first place for the females with 37 laps, Rhodes said.

The penny farthing was among the early examples of the bicycle when it was invented by British engineer James Starley in 1871, according to organizers of the race.

For the most part, the hobby catered to the elite, as the penny farthing cost a pretty penny, Rhodes said.

Today, a typical example in terms of a replica penny farthing begins at about $900 and can cost as much as $5,000, he said.

Despite the relatively high barrier to entry, part of the modern-day attraction for some penny farthing enthusiasts, beyond a love for all devices that move with two wheels, is an interest in the historical moment of the late 1800s.

Riders at the race, for instance, were encouraged to dress in woolen knickers and other period garb, Rhodes said, though not everyone did so.

Rhodes said he imagined that as the sport, or at least the race, hopefully gains some momentum, spectators could dress in late-1800s gear, as well.

And since Frederick is a city that honors and celebrates its rich history, it seemed the perfect location for the race, he said.

Barry and Lin Phelps were among the spectators seated on the street curb along the race’s path on North Market Street to catch a glimpse of the unusual bicycles and their riders.

“I’ve never seen a penny farthing before today,” Barry Phelps said. “I’m amazed at the balance it must take to get on and then to ride.”

Lin said part of the appeal of the race and the bicycles themselves was the chance to figuratively step back in time and ponder the creativity of the penny farthing’s inventors.

“What better place is there to do that than in Frederick?” she said.

Christopher Rhoten, of Westminster, and a rider in the race, bought his first high wheeler several years ago when he opened his bicycle shop in Martinsburg, W.Va.

The business, Eastern Panhandle Bicycle Co., has a logo that includes a man dressed in period gear standing next to a penny farthing.

Rhoten said he found one of the bicycles in poor condition, fixed it up and began riding it all over town.

This summer, he took about a month to fashion the 60-inch high wheeler he rode on in the race using spare parts from an old dentist’s chair, a boat, a grill and a wheelchair.

The typical high wheeler has a direct drive and works without a brake so that the rider has to constantly pedal to keep moving, he said.

Rhoten’s 60-inch — the tallest in the race — has a small hand brake at the top of the highest wheel’s rim to help ply speedy turns.

Rhoten, who is 6-foot-2, said he affixed the seat directly on the bicycle’s frame so that he could just reach the pedal.

A professional motocross rider from the late 1980s until 2000, Rhoten said learning to mount and then ride a high wheeler can be difficult.

“You feel the road big time,” he said.

Race participant Nick Ackermann, of Middletown, customized his 48-inch 2006 high wheeler replica to include handlebars made from oak.

A longtime bicycle enthusiast, Ackermann said he began riding a penny farthing about two years ago, inspired in part by his nostalgia for years he spent living in England.

“I guess I just like anything unusual,” he said.

Wearing the long-sleeved period dress from the late 1800s on a late summer’s day was another attraction, Ackermann said.

For her part, Angela Long, of West Friendship, wore black high-heeled shoes as part of her racing costume.

“The period part is really fun,” she said. “It’s my love. I like riding bikes, period.”

The differences between her easily maneuvered 30-speed bicycle and her 48-inch replica penny farthing are significant, most notably speed and weight, she said.

“You really need to focus on balance and control” on the penny farthing, she said.

“I enjoy it because it’s a different ride,” Long said.


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